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Emergence (Concertverse)
- Chapter 4

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Corralling the Horses[]

Jansen Cave Network
Timkovichi, Coventry Province
Lyran Commonwealth
13 August 3142

The darkness deep in the caves worked to the advantage of the 8th Striker Armored Regiment's Special Operations Team.  The twenty-four men and women, under the command of Captain Gabriel Tosh, moved along quietly with the aid of the camo system in their light Spectre battle armor.  Each had a sophisticated series of cameras and sensors that detected their surroundings and directed the surface of the armor to reflect the surfaces "behind" each, effectively making each suit invisible to the naked eye.  With heat baffles to thwart IR scanners and passive electronic baffles to prevent detection of their emissions, as well as the other functions of their suits' stealth armor, they were well-suited to their current task.  The passive sensors, using ultra-high frequency sonic waves, allowed them to see through the dark without light or emissions that sensors might pick up.

Said darkness relented only slightly as they came upon the camp.  Captain Tosh made a hand motion to his troops. Lieutenant Augusta Novan promptly dropped and planted her Longshot AP Gauss Rifle on the ground.  Specialized targeting sensors allowed her to employ the rifle as a sniper rifle.  Sergeant Stone slipped into place beside her, Assault Gauss Rifle at the ready should he need to protect Novan.

The other squads under his command likewise saw their snipers drop into position.  Delta Squad, in accordance with their orders, melted back into the darkness to fulfill their mission, while Baker Squad joined Tosh's Alphas in moving further.  They came upon the enemy sentries first, grim-faced men in bedraggled uniforms with IR and night vision headpieces over their eyes.  Tosh made the signal "Avoid", and nearly a dozen troopers followed him past the sentries, trusting in their camo systems and heat baffles to avoid detection.  Neither sentry showed sign of noticing them.  Given the way they stood, they were exhausted, and demoralized, and understandably so.  Their victory was taken by the unexpected, and now they had no expectations but to fight and die in the caves.

Past the sentries the cave opened up further, a grotto wiith a small lake fed by the underground springs that helped form the Jansen Caves over the eons.  More of the red-uniformed men and women with the fiery horse head patches milled about.  A few were at campfires preparing food while others were working on what looked like miniature BattleMechs, or something between a 'Mech and a battle armor suit.  They were bigger, though, that was sure, and would be murder on the Spectres if they got into a fight.

Tosh's squads fanned out into fire teams, each moving slowly toward one of the dormant machines.  At a horse-headed one, Tosh slipped an explosive charge into the knee actuator of the machine while another of his squad, Pierce, put one on the weapon barrel of the machine.  At the passing of a Horseman, they slipped behind one of the legs - even with the camo tech there was no point in risking discovery - and took the moment to retrieve more charges from their mission equipment pods.

That things seemed to be going so well was always a warning sign to special operators to be wary; it seemed to make it all the more likely that things would not be going well shortly, and indeed, may even go FUBAR.  Tosh and Pierce were fixing their charges to another of the ProtoMechs, a bull-headed one, when the alarm rose.

Immediately the Horsemen went into action.  Battle-armored infantry fanned out from their sentry points, weapons readied, and pilots scrambled for their machines.  At first the thought that an external attack had been ordered after all came to Tosh, but after a flash of laser light and a scream over their narrow-beam comm system, he knew it was not that.  "Execute discovery plan, now," he ordered, his Anglo-Antillan accent straight from Caledonia's New Antillan archipelago.

At that order the snipers opened up.  The heads and torsos of Horse pilots exploded, and from the direction the infiltrators came in, the rumbling sound of explosions filled the air.  "Stravags!" a voice cried.  "No panicking!  Get to your machines and—"  The offender's voice cut off suddenly, undoubtedly from a sniper round.

"Delta Squad here.  Cavern is sealed, boss.  Rodriguez almost didn't make it out, but we've got them trapped."

"Good.  Move up with us an' pick off stragglers."

Not only did he and his squad start shooting, they turned their suits' ECM on, to further decrease the risk of being hit.  Between that and their stealth, there was very little for any of the enemy to find and shoot, electronically speaking.  As a final gesture, they triggered their planted charges, crippling or disarming several of the ProtoMechs.

But they hadn't gotten them all, and those that came active were soon sweeping the grotto with their weapons.  All sorts of fire flared out at the slightest movement.  While their Spectre armor had some protection, the heavier lasers or multiple missile impacts could defeat their protection, and Tosh listened to the cries for help from his wounded and dying troopers.

Initially all he could do was continue his bloody work, using his Assault APGR to thin out enemy ranks as the last ProtoMechs and battle armors were manned, but as targets reduced to few and then none, his attention turned to his soldiers.  He noted one visible set of Spectre armor that was quite neatly, and gruesomely, bisected across the upper waist.  He knelt down below the upper half and opened a faceplate.  Inside, Corporal Karl Linz stared at him with glassy, tear-filled eyes.  "Moved too quick," he mumbled.  "They got me.  I'm… I'm dying."

"Hold on," he urged the man.  "The medics are comin'."

"Not fast enough.  Not fast enough…"

And indeed, they weren't.

The disorganized Horses quickly understood two things: they were under attack, and that someone was blocking their retreat.

That didn't stop them from moving further into the caves, at least, not until the Elementals discovered the passages blocked by broken stone and rock from still-billowing clouds of light dust.  But with retreat not just being blocked but completely blocked, they had only one choice left to them, and their surviving commander quickly took it, and unknowingly ensured no other losses to the infiltration team.

To a man, the Horses rushed the entrance of the cave, determined to bleed the enemy they were certain was waiting for them of every liter of blood they could extract.

What they found was nothing.  There were no enemy positions at the cave entrance.  No 'Mechs, no tanks, no infantry, nothing to shoot.

Nothing, at least, until the ProtoMechs' sensors picked up the distant VTOLs.

By then the Ghastillan-made Luftkanone VTOLs already had their bearings.  In the colors of the 4th Ghastillan Grenadiers and the 8th Strikers, two sets of the VTOLs opened up with the Thumper cannons built into their frames.  A barrage of high explosive shells started going off in the midst of the Horse formation, tearing apart armored infantry and the more damaged ProtoMechs immediately.

The choices for the Horse units were simple: keep going and face continued artillery assault, and who knew what else, retreat into a trap, or the unthinkable choice, surrender.

The second, at least, had the appeal of buying them time to get their bearings.  But it might also rob them of their remaining morale and make surrender sound more appealing.  And these were the heart of the "Mongol" faction of the Horses, those who saw Falcon Khan Hazen's way as the best way for their Clan.  They would not submit.

So they pressed on, looking to get into combat range with the enemy air artillery.  It was a hopeless plan, as the tilt-rotor craft need only pull backward to keep the range, and that they easily did.  Their fire spread out, losing some of its lethality, but the Horses' losses were already so severe that they couldn't afford what casualties they were still taking.

That was when the Long Tom Cannons of the 4th Grenadiers Command DropShips opened up as well.

The attack became a slaughter, and the last survivors of the 666th Mechanized Cluster never fired another shot before their extirpation

The events, as bloody as they were, played for the assembled commanders in sterile holographic markings in the Kell Hound command vehicle.  "That's it, then," Bridger said, nodding to Evan.  "Colonel Kell, it is my pleasure to inform you that this world is secure from enemies.  Our duty is done."

"Bloody hell, General," Evan replied, in the voice of a man who'd not quite expected to live out the day, especially upon seeing that Falcon cruiser start descending, “When your boys do a job, they damn well do it thoroughly.”  Outside the night sky was visible, although none of them had yet to leave.

That's not to say they hadn't noticed the same thing virtually everyone had, of the bright blue blob openly visible in their night sky.

"Any word from your fleet?" Nadia Allard asked.

"They sent a remote drone through a while back, but it could be a while before there's a response.  If there can be one."

"I hope there’s gonna be," Evan said.  "Wouldn't lie, we could use your help - Falcons and Horses caught us with our shorts down - but even if that isn’t an option, you and yours deserve to be able to get home. God willing, you will; I know how I’d feel being cut off from Arc-Royal for good, and no-one deserves that."

"Thought's appreciated, and welcome," Bridger replied.  "As for the prisoners, we'll start turning them over to you immediately."

"Although there is one you may be wary of receiving," Brigadier Laguna said.  "My medics extracted the living pilot of a winged enemy assault 'Mech, one marked with a black rose.  Given what they're hearing from your people…"

"Christ." Evan looked like he’d been punched in the gut. “You mean you’ve got Hazen alive?”

"The medics stabilized her, yes."  Laguna noted their expressions, and given what they'd learned, she didn't begrudge them the unspoken attitude each had: "You should have let the bitch die".  "SOP, same as you I'm sure."

That was answered by a nod.

"She's not ours to judge," Bridger said quietly.  "So we'll turn her over to you whenever you're ready."  He said that knowing there was a good chance someone on the other side would murder Khan Hazen in her sickbed.

“I’d prefer it if you didn’t,” Evan shook his head. “Ordinarily, I could count on my people not to do anything … untoward,” he settled on, “But after everything she’s done, the Armoured Guard’d shoot her the instant they got hold of her; and even in my Hounds’ hands I can’t guarantee someone wouldn’t slip her enough morphine to make a ghost bear see elephants. Hell, I’m tempted to do it myself. As it is,” the big man leaned against the map table, “there’s people I need to talk to to figure out what we’re gonna do with her - the Republic’s got as good a claim on her as we do for a start, even if we can’t talk to them through the Fortress - and this is way over my paygrade.”

"We'll keep her in our custody if that's what you'd prefer." Bridger offered.  "I figure Admiral Marik will even agree to bring her up to the Arcadia."

"Although how fast you can talk to your superiors is another matter," General Istenburg noted.  "If the HPGs are down, and if you don't have black boxes, it could be months before we hear from them."

Evan nodded. "Maybe two in every ten HPGs still work, but there’s a whole lot of breaks in the chain, and most of the ones that still work aren’t working the way they should. There used to be a Black Box chain out here, I remember that from my history lessons - Archon Adam set it up in the JIhad, but with the peace it looks like the local command let it lapse. One more thing we let slip,” his voice turned bitter. “Sometimes I think us and the Davions were the only ones outside the Republic who bought into Stone’s ideal. Means it’s down to the Pony Express for passing messages; I’ve sent one of our ships to Arc-Royal to let them know we survived, and they'll be carrying word of your arrival.  I'll have to send another to give Martin and Khan Fetladral the update about Hazen; hopefully it’ll make it in time to pass the word on to Lady Trillian. If not, just gotta hope she’s still close enough we can find her."

"The Archon?"

"Not quite; more of a roving troubleshooter for the Archon at the moment. These days, she’s pretty close to next in line, though, and I’d prefer her over the other choice; Vedet Brewer.” Evan practically spat the name. “The Duke of Hesperus; he’s a proven combat commander, and he’s made some smart calls in the past - sending the Eighth Lyran Guards and the LCS Yggdrasil to back up the Stormhammers on Skye in ‘35 for a start - but I wouldn’t trust the man to sell me a used groundcar, or watch my back in a fight. He’s an ambitious, backstabbing son of a Blakist with the loyalty of a scorpion. I’m pretty sure it was him who advised Archon Melissa to try backstabbing the Crusader Wolves, and that’s cost the Commonwealth; good people, and most of what we won in HAMMERFALL. He’s been hanging around on Tharkad a lot lately; God knows what he might’ve done by now, without me or Roderick around to keep an eye on him.”

"These Wolves, are they just as murderous as these Falcons and Horses?" Patel asked wearily.

"No, have to say they're not. They play by the rules more.  But they're damned aggressive; it’s one reason Melissa figured she could use them against the former League states. That didn’t really work; it just united them; not that since Thaddeus Marik bought it they’ve been able to stop Seth Ward carving himself an empire out of the new League and parts of our space.” Evan frowned. “Which I guess would include your core territories, if you're set up down that way."

"That it would," Bridger answered.  He checked his wrist watch.  "Well, I'd better see to briefing Admiral Marik, now that the fighting's over.  I'm keeping a command post in Cirenholm until we find out more about what's going to happen, I'll get a liaison officer over to you tonight."

"They'll be welcome, General.  We'll keep in touch."

For Private Delanie Baker of the 8th Striker Armored Infantry Regiment's 3rd Battalion, the day's hard fight was giving way to the monotony of a cleanup.  The Concordian woman, native to the New Appalachian Continent, joined her platoon in securing the damaged and captured DropShiips that ferried the "Falcon" troops planetside.  The crews didn't surrender so much as get themselves killed resisting attack, and the ship itself may never fly again given how much damage the aerojocks had inflicted on it.  Securing it was the last task to a very unexpectedly long day.

The aptly-named Striker battle armor gave her the strength to tear open most of the damaged bulkheads that barred their way, and in one case they were able to jump to an upper deck to get around an obstruction.  They found the occasional body, blown apart by explosions or fried by penetrating laser or PPC fire, and the feeling of the ship as a charnel house left Delanie with an uneasy feeling while advancing through.

"Hey Del." Her partner, Private Jinosuke Tanaga of New Kyoto, spoke English with only a faint New Kyoto accent.  "Got that blip too?"

She almost asked what he meant until she noted the life sign showing on her battle armor's sensor systems.  There was someone alive on this tub.  "Yeah. We got a live one. Let's be careful."

"Right. Heard this crew went down hard.  Fanatics."

They followed the source past a blown bulkhead to the ship's living quarters. They found what looked to be a larger set of quarters, officers' quartering, where the life sign was strongest.

Then the actual life sign came for them.  Much to Delanie's surprise, a young woman, probably only in her teens, lunged from a half-opened hatch door with terror and anger in equal parts on her face.  She took a knife as if to plunge it into Delanie's chest, but the blade instead broke against the Striker's armored skin.  The jumpsuited child shrieked at her and struck as if to claw her.  Delanie grabbed the girl's wrist as softly as she could with the suit, holding the limb as if she were trying to grasp a chicken egg.  This let her avoid smashing bones, but the girl still shrieked and slumped in her grasp before trying to pull out.

Jinosuke's external lights came on and allowed Delanie a closer look at her attacker.  The girl had to be no more than seventeen, she was certain, and possibly younger.  Her clothing was a nondescript jumpsuit of sorts, which covered her from neck to heel.  She didn't look starved, at least from Delanie's perspective.

Her eyes were drawn to the limb she was gripping.  The girl's free hand was frantically trying to force Delanie's manipulator off.  Around the wrist was a triple braided cord of two green and one white band, with a green falcon insignia on it.

"Jeez Louise, calm down girl!" Delanie called out, using the external speakers and speaking in her usual soft drawl.  "Christ, I don't want to hurt you!"

The girl screamed again, but used no words.

Delanie keyed her squad's tac-comm.  "Loo, Sarge, we found someone.  Looks too young to be crew, but she's mighty pissed at something.  Get someone up here that's out of a suit before she makes me break her arm or somethin'!"

Now in the customary red duty uniform of an AFRF officer, Evangeline stepped into the Battalion Command office on the Charles Sinclair.  Her hand came up in a salute that was more instinct than intentional gesture.  Major Alejandro Perez was a fellow Launumeño, with light brown skin and hair, a fellow commoner although without family in the nobility like Evangeline had (her grandfather had been a younger son of the Count of Vallejo).  Technically Perez was the battalion XO, but Lt. Colonel Opel was back on Arc-Royal after being diagnosed with early-onset cancer, and the Colonelcy Board had yet to approve Perez's promotion.

"Lieutenant, at ease," he said.  "I just wanted to check base with you after earlier."

"I…"  She swallowed.  "Sorry, sir, it won't happen again."

"What, shooting a dead 'Mech to scrap?"  Perez showed her a warm smile.  "Lieutenant, you're not the first, and frankly that pilot was insanely capable.  I sympathize with wanting to make sure she was down."

"She was the enemy leader, I hear."

"She was," Perez noted.  "You got co-kill credit with the Navy flyboys and that Awesome pilot."

"Leutnant Palisser.  I met her earlier today.  Good MechWarrior.  A bit better put together than I was at the time."  She drew in a breath to try and control herself, mostly so she wouldn't start crying again.  "Still am."

Perez nodded and, with a voice full of sympathy, said, "It's hard, yeah.  Seeing comrades die."

"Not just… not just die."  Evangeline licked her lips.  "Captain Kincaid saved my life.  She… she was incredible too.  And that Khan Hazen just… killed her.  Like she could just magically focus her weapon on any target she pleased.  I've never seen anything like it."

"I have to admit I haven't either, Lieutenant.  Sometimes all we can do is thank God we got to live and move on."  Perez gestured to a chair, the kind you might find in a waiting room in some commercial business.  She took the seat gratefully.  "You did good, Lieutenant.  This was your first firefight, and you didn't freeze up, you didn't get distracted.  You showed you could do this."

"Yeah.  I… I just…"

"'re not sure you can again?" he asked, after she couldn't say more.  "Yeah, I understand that.  A lot of young MechWarriors go through that after their first firefight.  They all end up dealing with it.  No different with you."

She recognized he was trying to not only reassure her, but ready her for continued service.  Right now all she wanted to do was go home and imagine her entire life of the last five years was a bad dream. To go back to that day she was told she qualified for courses at an AFRF academy and say "No thank you," and instead dedicate herself to a civilian occupation.

Perez stood.  "Follow me, Lieutenant."

She'd not expected that, but she did as ordered.  Perez led her up into one off the upper decks and to the Sinclair's infirmary.  They went past scrub-clad personnel to the patient ward, where some of the 8th Striker's jump infantry were now stationed, sans jump packs, to watch over enemy troops still being cared for.  "Here she is."

Khan Hazen was smaller than Evangeline would have imagined.  The murderous leader was a slip of a woman, not at all imposing in size, clad in a patient's gown.  Unlike some of the others present, she wasn't cuffed to her bed… because there was no point.  None of her limbs was intact, save the stub of one thigh visible under the covering sheet.  Her face was a mass of cuts covered in bandages, with a breathing tube connected to the mask over her mouth and nose and her right eye likewise covered in bandages.  Metal surface was visible underneath the edge of some of those bandages, implying some cybernetic components already present.  Soft trilling equipment confirmed brain and heart activity, but Captain Kincaid and Lieutenant von Krager's killer remained unmoving in the bed.

"Feel better?" Perez asked.

"I… suppose so," she said.  It was reassuring to see the state of this vicious woman, given everything Leutnant Palisser said about her.  Looks like her cockpit got smashed in and cut her to pieces.  She's probably lucky to be alive.  Or God's being particularly thorough in the punishment.

"It's always going to be with you.  Won't lie about that.  But it can be lived with.  And II think you've got some of the best potential I've seen in a while. So go sleep on it.  You'll start feeling better tomorrow."

And with that, he left, and she followed.

A series of strong electronic tones stirred Captain Sheffield from his sleep.  Bleary-eyed and still rather tired, he didn't bother removing the straps that held his covers in place, a precaution against the grav-deck stopping and leaving him in zero-G.  His hand slapped away at the nightstand bolted beside his bed, one of the luxuries of his rank present in the captain's quarters of the Emancipator.  "Yes?"

"Captain." Through his groggy mind he registered the voice as Commander Rachel Tishone, his XO, a native of the continent of Mull on Arcadia and its East African-founded communities.  "Sir, I thought you should know… the drone's come back through."

All thought of sleep fled from Sheffield's mind.

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